Most people recall Eliot Ness as the Treasury Department agent who headed the crack team of incorruptible federal agents that brought down notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone during the Prohibition era.
History remembers Ness and his T-men as “The Untouchables,” renowned in a book, television show and movie of the same name. While the danger they faced was real — attempts were made on Ness' life, the mob tried to bribe him and one of his friends was killed — Ness' successes weren't as grand as he and the media made them out to be. (It could be argued that Ness' efforts amounted to little more than an annoyance for the deep-pocketed gangsters, and Ness played little part in Capone's eventual arrest and prosecution.)
Regardless, Ness became a media darling, and after Prohibition ended in 1933, he worked for a time as a revenuer, facing down mountain moonshiners. In 1935, he left federal work to accept the position of Public Safety Director in Cleveland, Ohio, a city filled with gangsters and racketeers who had fled Chicago. The untouchable Ness was needed to end police corruption.
It was in Cleveland that everything changed for Ness. The story people don't know, the one that has been sparsely written about for decades, is a tale darker than Prohibition, more gruesome than even the worst of the mob's atrocities.
It's the story that Rose State College professor and best-selling author William Bernhardt brought to life in his 2009 thriller, “Nemesis: The Final Case of Eliot Ness.” The book, based on the actual facts of the case and documentary evidence, relates the tale of the Cleveland torso murders — the case Ness couldn't solve.
Now Bernhardt's book, which names a real historical figure whom he believes was the killer, is being made into an NBC miniseries, tentatively slated to begin its run after the 2015 Super Bowl.
“No one has been cast yet,” Bernhardt said, “although I think that's going to happen soon.”
Between 1935 and 1938, someone — arguably America's first serial killer — preyed on Cleveland's poor, of which there were many. The country was still reeling from the Great Depression. The city's homeless gathered together in a makeshift shantytown in a part of the city still known today as The Flats.
The killer claimed at least a dozen lives, although many believe the number could be much higher. Of the canonical victims, seven were men and five women. All were dismembered. Some died as a result of decapitation. Most of the men were castrated. Many of the dead remain unidentified.
But Ness wasn't equipped to solve this type of crime. They didn't know about serial killers back then.”